Representation for Hispanics in film, as is the case with many ethnicities, has not always been easy to find. Major Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth, whose birth name was Margarita Carmen Hayworth Cansino, had to veil their ethnic roots in order to find success in their careers. With the start of Hispanic Heritage Month beginning on September 15th, I thought this was the perfect time to compile a list of films representing the five areas of the world traditionally celebrated during this time. You’ll find that these movies all feature artists and filmmakers from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean as well as Central and South America. Hopefully these suggestions encourage you to dive deeper into the ever-growing world of Hispanic cinema.
‘Cassandro, The Exotico!’ (2018)
Saúl Armendáriz, better known as Cassandro, is a world-renowned Lucha Libre wrestler. Known for his elaborate costumes with gown-like trains and sometimes referred to as The Liberace of Lucha Libre, this documentary takes a glimpse into the personal and professional life of the openly gay wrester. Born in El Paso, Texas, he spent much of his childhood right across the border in Juárez, Mexico where he learned to wrestle. In this documentary, Cassandro touches on his past struggles with addiction, his abusive childhood, and maintaining his mental health. Viewers also are given a chance to see the physical toll that a highly successful career, which at the time of filming has lasted nearly three decades, has had on his body. With a new biopic soon to be released starring Gael García Bernal as Cassandro, there is no better time to watch this documentary. Be sure to check it out before the new film, Cassandro, is released on Amazon Prime later this month, September 21.
‘La Llorona’ (2019)
At the start, please let me make it very clear that this film is not The Curse of La Llorona, the other movie based on the classic Hispanic folktale which was also released in 2019. The movie I’m recommending comes from Guatemala and was the country’s official submission for consideration for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. Although it is mostly thought of as a horror movie, La Llorona is much more than that. The story told in this film blends a well-known tale with the horrors of real-world events. A former Guatemalan dictator, now a feeble old man, is facing charges for his role in the genocide of the country’s native peoples. An enemy of the public, he is forced to take shelter in his home with his family, his security, and his housekeepers. The events that take place thereafter illustrate how the sins of one’s past can come back to haunt not only themselves, but also those closest to them.
‘Black Orpheus’ (1959)
An adaptation of the Greek mythological tale, Black Orpheus is the reimagining of the tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The two struggle to be together despite Mira, a jealous woman set on keeping them apart, and a mysterious figure that threatens to take Eurydice’s life. The film is set in Brazil during the peak of the Carnival festival, lending itself to the vibrant imagery seen all throughout, especially in the costumes. The music in Black Orpheus is highly regarded and the tagline even boasts that it is “The film that introduced Bossa Nova to the world.” Since its release, many have criticized the films depiction of the people and culture it attempts to represent, a problem that even movies today are struggling to get right. Despite this criticism, the movie received an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Palme d’Or and currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%.
Director Pedro Almodóvar has a penchant for taking sensitive subject matter and injecting it with a healthy dose of dark, and sometimes absurd, humor. These themes are often set against backdrops containing vibrant, saturated colors, and Volver is no exception.
When sisters Raimunda and Sole are faced with family tragedies on the same night, the two are forced to withhold secrets from each other. Tasked with being the sole provider for her and her teenage daughter, Raimunda begins to secretly run a restaurant all while struggling to conceal what happened on that fateful night. Meanwhile, Sole is visited by their dead mother who may or may not be an apparition. These events all spark a catalyst for a story that leads these women to uncover secrets from their past and confront the unpleasant truths about their childhood.
With a performance from Penélope Cruz in what would be her first Academy Award nominated role, Volver is a great introduction for someone looking to explore Spanish film.
‘Buena Vista Social Club’ (1999)
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Wim Wenders, this documentary follows a group of senior musicians as they record the 1997 album “Buena Vista Social Club.” The album was directed by Juan de Marcos González and guitarist Ry Cooder, who set out to bring together notable Cuban artists who had been all but forgotten.
Interspersed between the recording sessions and live performances are quick histories of each performer given in their own words. Whether it be from working as a shoe shiner or being born into a long line of musicians, all these artists are unified in their love of creating music.
With the wide success of the album, performances were held in various parts of the world outside of Cuba. Viewers are given a chance to watch as the group travels from Havana to fulfill their dreams of performing at the legendary Carnegie Hall, and for some, exploring New York City for the first time in their lives.